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A Wary Adaptation: Cannabis and the Small-Town Cop

October 20, 2016

When the city council voted to allow cannabis retailers in tiny Union Gap, Washington, a few years ago, police chief Gregory Cobb was quick to make his objections known. Cobb was sure legalization would bring more underage use and cannabis-related DUIs. He was also certain that the town’s three cash-only cannabis stores would be sitting ducks for crime.

“We thought we’d have a huge increase in calls for these three stores, whether it be robberies in the parking lot or robberies inside the store, or burglaries,” Cobb told me recently. “I made it known to my council members that I thought this was a horrible idea.” 

Legalization has brought challenges, but the nightmare scenarios haven't materialized.

Two years later, Cobb admits that many of his initial fears were largely unfounded. Union Gap hasn’t seen a rise in underage use or cannabis-related driving infractions. Officers get called to the retail stores, Cobb says, “but it’s for the same types of calls that we get for any other business in town.”

Although Cobb is careful to say he’s not endorsing retail marijuana sales. He wants to see more long-term data on DUIs and underage use. But he admits, “the things I projected would occur to date haven’t occurred.”

Union Gap Chief of Police Gregory Cobb patrols the city streets, photographed Wednesday, October 12, 2016, in Union Gap, Washington. (Jordan Stead for Leafly)

Police Chief Gregory Cobb patrols the streets of Union Gap, Washington, in mid-October, 2016. (Jordan Stead for Leafly)

Cobb’s experience isn’t unique. When Washington state voters approved recreational cannabis in 2012, many law enforcement officials predicted dire consequences. Those warnings often affected the way local governments dealt with legalization. In  the city of Yakima, next door to Union Gap, strong opposition by police chief Dominic Rizzi figured heavily in the city council’s decision to ban recreational stores altogether.

Legalization has brought some new law enforcement challenges, but a number of small town cops now concede that the nightmare scenarios haven’t materialized.

“We’ve not seen a huge increase in what a lot of the public thought we were going to see,” says chief deputy Steve Brown, who oversees drug operations in rural Okanogan County, Washington. “We haven’t seen thefts go up. We have not seen citations for speeding go through the roof. Burglaries have not gone though the roof. Have we had a few drug-induced DUIs? Yes, we have. But no major spike. It’s not like everyday we’re going out there an arresting three or four people on the highway who are high on marijuana.”

These are only anecdotal accounts. Like Cobb and Brown, we’re still waiting for definitive data. But these early accounts do suggest that, at the very least, those impacts may be different than predicted. And given the increasingly significant role that rural communities play in cannabis farming, that difference could be highly significant.

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Dire sky-will-fall predictions from small town police departments weren’t entirely unreasonable, given the circumstances. Many rural communities are struggling with epidemics of heroin, meth, and other hard drugs. In Washington, Oregon, and California, small-town cops have first-hand knowledge of the role that organized crime has played in black market cannabis farming, especially on remote sites in national forests, which can encompass tens of thousands of miles in rural Western counties. Further, small-town cops, like their big-city counterparts, have grown concerned over the popularity of new products like as dabs and edibles.
Station 420, one of three cash-only, licensed marijuana retailers in the Yakima Valley, photographed Wednesday, October 12, 2016, in Union Gap, Washington. (Jordan Stead for Leafly)

Station 420 is one of three licensed, cash-only cannabis retailers in Washington State’s Yakima Valley. (Jordan Stead for Leafly)

That said, in many rural communities, the day-to-day law enforcement realities of recreational cannabis so far have been mundane: Mostly complaints from neighbors about the location of a retail store, amateur extraction fires, or the smell of a flowering crop. Also, employee theft. Brown and his colleagues in Okanogan County, which has nearly 60 grow operations, initially worried that the new farms would be picked clean at

“If you were a banker, would you give all your tellers access to the vault?”

harvest time by nighttime fence jumpers. Yet of the two major thefts at county pot farms thus far, both are believed to be inside jobs by employees or ex-employees. In one case, surveillance video caught the thief using the access code for a cannabis storeroom. That might say more about a farm’s security protocols than the overall success of legalization.  “I don’t know what kind of businessmen any of these people are,” Brown says of the farm owners. “But if you were a banker, would you give all your tellers access to the vault?”

Still, legalization has added real complexities to police work that can be burdensome in small town departments. Drug-sniffing dogs, for example, must now be “detrained” for marijuana. If they aren’t, suspects caught with heroin or meth can claim in court that their arrest was illegal because the police dog might have smelled their legal weed, the scent of which is no longer probable cause for a search and arrest. While detraining dogs is fairly easy, doing so has meant cops can’t use dogs to look for pot on minors, for whom pot is still illegal.

Likewise, while it’s still unclear whether recreational cannabis has been associated with higher rates of stoned driving, it has made traffic stops more complicated. Because a dependable pot breathalyzer doesn’t exist, cops who suspect a motorist is high must either do a blood test, which requires a warrant, or wait for an assessment from a specially trained drug-recognition expert. “It’s just a lot more of a process,” says Chief Deputy Steve Groseclose, who oversees drug enforcement in Douglas County. “And it’s a challenge for us to be able to investigate those [cases] and at the same time handle emergency calls.”

Union Gap, Washington, photographed Wednesday, October 12, 2016. (Jordan Stead for Leafly)

Union Gap, Washington, in late autumn. (Jordan Stead for Leafly)

Small towns and tiny budgets

These problems aren’t unique to small towns. Seattle is also grappling with blood tests and drug dog re-training, in addition to enforcement issues that most small towns don’t see. The difference is that big-city police departments can more readily absorb the cost of these new cannabis enforcement issues. Small town budgets can’t. Legal cannabis “has increased our calls,” says Groseclose, “we’re not getting more money for law enforcement. I mean, the state passes a law, and they collect the money from taxes, but I don’t see it filtering down to the local sheriff’s offices or counties very much.”

This points to another sore spot for small-town cops. Legalization advocates promised a flood of cannabis tax money to help defray law-enforcement costs. Yet many rural cops say the actual dollar amounts so far have been tiny. 

The black market is more resilient in rural areas. Locals “don’t want to be seen as doing it,” say police, “so they are keeping those backdoor connections.”

Money isn’t the only promised effect that hasn’t materialized. The argument that legalized marijuana would bankrupt the black market hasn’t been borne out in many rural communities. Part of that is economic. In the early days of the legal market, legal cannabis was more expensive than the black market variety, thanks to supply shortages and hefty state taxes. Prices have since dropped—substantially—and yet a shrunken black market still exists. For that, police blame the social stigma. Many small-town residents fear being judged by their neighbors for going to a licensed cannabis retailer. “They don’t want to be seen as doing it,” says Cobb, “so they are keeping those backdoor connections.”

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Rural police are skeptical about legalization, expecting negative data, but reconciled to dealing with a legal market.
Mitch Barker, executive director with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Deputies, likens that reluctance to the aftermath of Prohibition, when many drinkers were slow to switch from their black-market dealer to new, unfamiliar, often costlier state-sanctioned liquor stores. “If people had a good supplier of marijuana, if they liked the dealer, liked the product, and liked the price, they’re probably not going to just jump to state marijuana,” Barker says, adding that a complete transition may “take a generation or two of people saying ‘I’d rather be legal than save a few dollars’.”

In the meantime, the black market is not only active, but possibly interactive with the legal market. A number of rural cops I interviewed suspect that recreational growers may be diverting some of their crop to the black market—in part because they believe the state can’t realistically monitor how much finished cannabis each of those farmers actually produces.

Still, for now, rural police departments seem to be in a state of what might be called practical resignation: Still skeptical about legalization, expecting negative data to appear at some point, but reconciled to dealing with a legal cannabis  market in the meantime. State legislators “aren’t going to turn around and go back the other way and make it illegal [again],” says Groseclose. “It just won’t happen. So, we’re stuck with this experiment, whatever it is.”

And even those small-town police officials who continue to lobby against a cannabis market may find themselves in a losing battle. In May, the Yakima City Council politely but firmly ignored the advice of their anti-pot police chief and voted 4-3 to overturn the ban on recreational cannabis. Council member Holly Cousens, who led the move to lift the ban, said after the vote: “We heard the people.”

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Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts writes about business, technology, and natural resources. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The (UK) Guardian, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and other national publications. His latest book, "The Impulse Society," was published in 2014. He lives in Washington state.

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